Skip to main content
Tags: venezuela | nicolasm maduro | alex saab | prisoner | swap

US, Venezuela Swap Prisoners: Maduro Ally for Fugitive, 10 Americans

Wednesday, 20 December 2023 02:41 PM EST

The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor known as “Fat Leonard” who is at the center of a massive Pentagon bribery scandal, officials said Wednesday.

The deal represents the U.S. government’s boldest bid to improve relations with the major oil-producing nation and extract concessions from the self-proclaimed socialist leader. The largest release of American prisoners in Venezuela's history comes weeks after the Biden administration agreed to suspend some sanctions, following a commitment by Maduro and an opposition faction to work toward free and fair conditions for the 2024 presidential election.

The release of Alex Saab, a Maduro associate who was arrested on a U.S. warrant for money laundering in 2020 and long was regarded as a criminal trophy by Washington, is a significant concession to the Venezuelan leader. U.S. officials said the decision to grant him clemency was difficult but essential in order to bring home jailed Americans, a core administrative objective that in recent years has resulted in the release of criminals who once once been seen as untradeable.

“Sometimes that means you've got to make some difficult decisions,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

The deal also guarantees the release of 10 Americans who had been held in Venezuela, according to senior administration officials who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the White House. Several of the Americans have been formally designated by the U.S. government as wrongfully detained.

The agreement also will result in the extradition of Leonard Glenn Francis, the Malaysian owner of a ship-servicing company in Southeast Asia who is the central character in one of the largest bribery scandals in Pentagon history.

Nicknamed “Fat Leonard,” Francis fled home custody in San Diego in September 2022 and was arrested by Venezuelan police attempting to board a flight at the Simon Bolivar International Airport outside Caracas.

The exchange would also be seen as a major U.S. concession to Maduro, likely angering hard-liners in the Venezuelan opposition who have criticized the White House for standing by as the leader of the OPEC nation has repeatedly outmaneuvered Washington after the Trump administration’s campaign to topple him failed.

In October, the White House eased sanctions on Venezuela’s oil, gas and mining industries but threatened to reimpose the restrictions if Maduro, by Nov. 30, did not live up to his promise to pave the way for free and fair elections next year. He is seeking in 2024 to add six years to his decade-long, crisis-ridden presidency. That deadline has passed and so far Maduro has failed to reverse a ban blocking his chief opponent, María Corina Machado, from running for office.

President Joe Biden, who did not confirm any details about the prisoner exchange, told reporters: “It looks like Maduro, so far, is keeping his commitment on a free election. It ain’t done yet. Got a long way to go. But it’s good so far.”

But days after Maduro's negotiators and the U.S.-backed opposition agreed to work on electoral conditions, the country’s high court, stacked with Maduro loyalists, suspended the opposition’s entire primary election process. The attorney general opened criminal investigations against some of the organizers. Maduro, National Assembly leader Jorge Rodriguez and other allies insisted the balloting was fraudulent and challenged the participation of more than 2.4 million voters.

The U.S. sanctions remain eased as part of the deal announced Wednesday. It also requires Maduro's government to release 21 Venezuelans, including Roberto Abdul, who co-founded a pro democracy group with Machado more than two decades ago, and dismiss three arrest warrants.

Among the Americans behind bars in Venezuela are two former Green Berets, Luke Denman and Airan Berry, who were involved in an attempt to oust Maduro in 2019. Also detained are Eyvin Hernandez, Jerrel Kenemore and Joseph Cristella, who were accused of entering Venezuela illegally from Colombia. More recently, Venezuela arrested Savoi Wright, a 38-year-old California businessman.

The U.S. has conducted several swaps with Venezuela over the past few years. The most notable was a deal in October 2022 for seven Americans, including five oil executives at Houston-based Citgo, in exchange for the release of two nephews of Maduro’s wife jailed in the U.S. on narcotics charges.

Saab, 51, was pulled off a private jet during a fuel stop in Cape Verde en route to Iran, where he was sent to negotiate oil deals on behalf of Maduro’s government. The U.S. charges were conspiracy to commit money laundering tied to a bribery scheme that allegedly siphoned off $350 million through state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.

Saab was previously sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for allegedly running a scheme that included Maduro’s inner circle and stole hundreds of millions in dollars from food-import contracts at a time of widespread hunger mainly due to shortages in the South American country.

Maduro’s government has argued that Saab is a Venezuelan diplomat who is entitled to immunity from criminal prosecution under international law. But his defense attorneys said last year in a closed-door hearing before his arrest that Saab had been secretly cooperating with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. They said he was helping the DEA untangle corruption in Maduro’s inner circle and agreed to forfeit millions of dollars in illegal proceeds from corrupt state contracts.

But the value of the information he shared with the Americans is unknown; some have suggested it may have all been a Maduro-authorized ruse to collect intelligence on the U.S. law enforcement activities in Venezuela. Whatever the case, Saab skipped out on a May 2019 surrender date and shortly afterward, he was charged by federal prosecutors in Miami.

Meanwhile, millions of Venezuelans who have chosen to remain in their country continue to live in poverty. The minimum wage is about $3.60 a month, just enough to buy a gallon of water. The low wages and high food prices have pushed more than 7.4 million people to leave the country.

The deal is the latest concession by the Biden administration in the name of bringing home Americans jailed overseas. Perhaps the most-high-profile prisoner exchange came last December when the U.S. government, over the objections of some Republicans in Congress and criticism from some law enforcement officials, traded Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout for WNBA star Brittney Griner.

In September, Iran released five American detainees in exchange for the release of nearly $6 billion in frozen Iranian assets and two Iranian prisoners who had been jailed in the United States.

The succession of swaps has raised concerns that the U.S. is incentivizing hostage-taking abroad and producing a false equivalence between Americans who are wrongfully detained abroad and foreigners who have been properly prosecuted and convicted in U.S courts. But Biden administration officials say securing the freedom of wrongfully detained Americans and hostages abroad is a core government priority that requires difficult dealmaking.

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

The United States freed a close ally of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in exchange for the release of 10 Americans imprisoned in the South American country and the extradition of a fugitive defense contractor known as "Fat Leonard" who is at the center of a massive...
venezuela, nicolasm maduro, alex saab, prisoner, swap
Wednesday, 20 December 2023 02:41 PM
Newsmax Media, Inc.

Sign up for Newsmax’s Daily Newsletter

Receive breaking news and original analysis - sent right to your inbox.

(Optional for Local News)
Privacy: We never share your email address.
Join the Newsmax Community
Read and Post Comments
Please review Community Guidelines before posting a comment.

Interest-Based Advertising | Do not sell or share my personal information

Newsmax, Moneynews, Newsmax Health, and Independent. American. are registered trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc. Newsmax TV, and Newsmax World are trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc.

America's News Page
© Newsmax Media, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
Download the NewsmaxTV App
Get the NewsmaxTV App for iOS Get the NewsmaxTV App for Android Scan QR code to get the NewsmaxTV App
America's News Page
© Newsmax Media, Inc.
All Rights Reserved